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What is Myelodysplasia?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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The term “myelodysplasia” is used to refer to two different medical issues. The first is a family of conditions known as myelodysplastic syndromes which are characterized by inadequate production of blood cells in the bone marrow. The second is spina bifida, a congenital anomaly in which the spine and spinal cord do not form correctly. When people talk about “myelodysplasia,” they are usually thinking of conditions which involve low blood cell production.

Myelodysplasia can set in at any age. In some cases it is linked with genetic disorders which impede blood cell productions, while in other cases it is associated with environmental exposures such as exposure to radiation. Patients may also develop this condition without any known cause. People who have been exposed to toxins and radiation are at increased risk of developing myelodysplasia among other health problems. Individuals with a history of such exposure should make sure that it is noted in their charts because this can have an impact on medical treatment.

Patients with myelodysplasia develop symptoms like fatigue, susceptibility to infections, anemia, and pallor. Over time, the condition can progress to acute myelogenous leukemia in some patients. There are a number of different myelodysplastic syndromes which are linked with different symptoms and can involve different approaches to treatment. Diagnosis requires a number of tests to rule out other conditions which cause similar conditions.

Curing myelodysplasia is not possible, but there are treatments available. Some patients benefit from bone marrow transfusions, in which healthy bone marrow is transplanted from a donor so that the patient's body can start to make enough blood cells. Others may take medications which are designed to encourage immature blood cells to mature so that they will have enough blood cells. Treating underlying genetic issues can also sometimes address myelodysplasia.

In the case of spina bifida, a neural tube defect involving the spine and spinal cord which forces part of the spinal cord to protrude through the spine, myelodysplasia is often diagnosed during prenatal screenings. The severity of this congenital anomaly can vary considerably, with some patients having relatively mild anomalies while others may have serious neurological abnormalities such as incompletely formed brains. Surgery can be performed after birth to correct the anomaly and sometimes surgery during pregnancy is also an option. Intrauterine surgery is a delicate procedure performed by an maternal-fetal medicine specialist. Studies have demonstrated that taking folic acid during pregnancy can radically reduce the risk of spina bifida.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Sep 30, 2011

In the article it mentions taking folic acid is a good idea during pregnancy, to help prevent spina bifida, which is a myelodysplasia disorder.

Often folic acid is added to common foods, like sliced bread, by the government, so if you are concerned about this, you can get your daily requirements this way.

I have heard of controversy surrounding this kind of practice, like putting fluoride into water. But, if it does no harm and can prevent birth defects, personally I have no problem with it.

By umbra21 — On Sep 29, 2011

@indigomoth - Spina bifida is bad and should be avoided if possible. But it's not the end of the world for people who do end up with it. And sometimes a mother can do everything right and her child might still develop it.

There are quite a few people who have become high achievers in spite of their condition. Paraolympians and musicians and actors and so forth.

Of course, the condition has various levels of severity so in some cases it can be fatal to the child born with it, and in others it might not affect their daily lives at all.

In fact, with the mildest form of spina bifida, the person with the condition might not ever realize they have it.

Just to make sure people don't think it is always a death sentence, or is a simple case of bad mothering either.

By indigomoth — On Sep 28, 2011

Spina bifida is a really awful disease. For some reason it is more common with people who have Irish ancestry, and since I do have Irish ancestry, I've always been a bit paranoid about making sure I take vitamin supplements, just in case.

I've heard that if you drink too much and have a bad diet without replenishing your vitamins you can also cause spina bifada in your child if you get pregnant.

I guess the hard thing is that often people aren't expecting to get pregnant, and by the time they realize it, the damage is already done. But, then you should be taking care of yourself anyway, even if you don't expect to get pregnant any time soon, or at all.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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